Computerworld's 40th Anniversary

Essay: Random-access memories of 40 years of IT

Offbeat recollections of 40 years of the computer world

Computerworld's 40th Anniversary

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It was 1967. Students were protesting an unpopular war. Beatle John Lennon was on the cover of the first issue of Rolling Stone. And Patrick J. McGovern started Computerworld, a newsweekly for the computer community, to tell computer buyers the unvarnished truth about things like disk crashes and system failures.

Since then, Computerworld has chronicled all of the big developments of the past four decades: relational databases, personal computing, the Internet, Y2k, open-source software, wireless devices and the rise of the chief information officer.

You already know about Grace Hopper, Max Hopper, Steve Jobs and outsourced jobs. Youre familiar with high-tech miniaturization to the point that were typing with the tips of our thumbs on BlackBerry devices. Youve been subject to Moores Law, Murphys Law and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

But what I find just as interesting as the megatrends and milestones are the stories that wont make it into the history books: the industry flops, quirky inventions and computer glitches with headlines like Woman Dead Three Years Gets Medicaid. Consider the hand-cranked laptop, patented 10 years ago. When the battery started to run down, a red-alert message would tell the user to start turning a winding key ... similar to winding up a large windup alarm clock, according to U.S. Patent No. 5,630,155.

When I started at Computerworld's Washington bureau in 1984, I used a PortaBubble word-processing machine with magnetic bubble memory and an acoustic coupler to send stories to headquarters. It was the size of a microwave oven and just as heavy to lug around.

Bubble memory didnt catch on, though, because semiconductor memory got bigger, better and cheaper. The PortaBubbles maker, Teleram Communications Corp., went bankrupt in 1985 because journalists switched in droves to RadioShack Corp.s much lighter TRS-80 laptop.

And its always fun to watch conventional wisdom turn out to be spectacularly wrong. In 1984, for instance, it was widely assumed that AT&T, unshackled from its local telephone companies, would become a formidable competitor against IBM in the computer business. AT&T did give it a try; it owned Unix and NCR Corp. for a while but didnt know what to do with them and eventually left the computer business.

Social Issues

Today, we forget how much the general public in the 70s was alarmed about the downsides of computerization. In 1977, communist militants went so far as to bomb computer centers throughout Italy, causing millions of dollars in damage, on the grounds that the centers were instruments of capitalism. In 1978, printers and journalists stopped work at West German newspapers to protest the introduction of computers.

Even as late as the 1980s, Computer­world was covering debates about whether radiation from video display terminals caused health problems, whether data entry workers were laboring in sweatshop conditions and whether computerization was de-skilling jobs.

Worries about Big Brother were so great that the slightest hint that some government action could, in a worst-case scenario, reduce privacy was a big deal. Hearings were held, headlines ensued, hands were wrung. In January 1978, the Carter administration actually canceled an $850 million IRS computer system because of fears that it would threaten the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

Back then, there were passionate discussions about computer ethics and the need for computer professionals to be good stewards of the information entrusted to them. Today, theres little protest over no-fly databases, government data mining, computer tapes disappearing from trucks and behavioral tracking of the Web sites we visit.

Until recently, computer professionals have generally seen themselves as upbeat problem-solvers, confident that anything is possible given enough time to code it. That confidence has been shaken in the past few years, thanks to cost-cutting, layoffs, skimpy raises and the ever-present fear of outsourcing. But when I read the profiles of the next generation of IT leaders, which appear later in this special report, I was impressed by their understanding of the challenges ahead. Their dedication to battling complexity, improving security and cutting energy consumption plus their recognition that technology has its downsides give me hope that the best of IT is yet to come.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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